How Executive Sponsors Influence Project Success

The role of project sponsors is often overlooked. But for every stage of a project, there are key executive sponsor behaviors that can make the difference between success and failure.

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Companies undertake projects to create and improve their products, systems and services. To improve the chances that projects will be successful, it’s common for organizations to choose senior executives with an interest in the outcome to act as the project’s sponsors. Executive sponsors are responsible for lining up the necessary resources at the beginning, managing (or personally performing) certain activities while the project is underway, and ultimately delivering results.1 Since executive sponsors rarely have enough time to manage projects personally, they must rely heavily on project managers. So which activities and behaviors can busy sponsors perform in the course of a project to increase the chances of a project’s success?

According to recent studies, this is an important question. The Project Management Institute, a professional association for project management professionals based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, states that having executive sponsors who are actively engaged is the leading factor in project success.2

In researching what makes for successful project sponsorship, we used a project life-cycle model with four stages: (1) initiating — from the preliminary idea through approved charter; (2) planning — from approved charter through approved project plan; (3) executing — from approved project plan through acceptance of major deliverables; and (4) closing — from acceptance of major deliverables through final completion. Projects come in many shapes and sizes, and many life-cycle models are used to guide behavior and understanding. We chose to use the simplest model.

Most successful organizations are familiar with the initiating stage of a project. Also well accepted is that there are steps that need to be taken to close down the project after the major project deliverables are completed. While the first and last stages of projects are clear, in some settings, the planning takes place before executing starts; other times, there is overlap between planning and executing, or the two are iterative. To ensure that our research was valid for all types of projects, we specifically asked participants in our planning study to focus on planning behaviors and participants in the executing study to focus on executing behaviors.



1. See Project Management Institute, “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge” (PMBOK Guide), fifth ed. (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, 2013): 32; and United Kingdom Office of Government Commerce, “An Introduction to PRINCE2™: Managing and Directing Successful Projects” (Norwich, United Kingdom: The Stationery Office, 2009): 21.

2. See Project Management Institute and Boston Consulting Group, “Executive Sponsor Engagement: Top Driver of Project and Program Success,” (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: PMI/BCG, October 2014), p. 2.

3. See, for instance, J.K. Pinto, “The Elements of Project Success,” in “Field Guide to Project Management,” ed. D.I. Cleland (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2004): 14-27; K. Jugdev and R. Müller, “A Retrospective Look at our Evolving Understanding of Project Success,” Project Management Journal 36, no. 4 (December 2005): 19-31; A. Shenhar and D. Dvir, “Reinventing Project Management” (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2007): 25; A. Malach-Pines, D. Dvir and A. Sadeh, “Project Manager-Project (PM-P) Fit and Project Success,” International Journal of Operations & Production Management 29, no. 3 (2009): 268-291; T.J. Kloppenborg, D. Tesch and C. Manolis, “Investigation of the Sponsor’s Role in Project Planning,” Management Research Review 34, no. 4 (2011): 400-416; and P. Morris, “Reconstructing Project Management Reprised: A Knowledge Perspective,” Project Management Journal 44, no. 5 (October 2013): 6-23.

i. T.J. Kloppenborg, D. Tesch and C. Manolis, “Project Success and Executive Sponsor Behaviors: Empirical Life Cycle Stage Investigations,” Project Management Journal 45, no. 1 (February/March 2014): 9-20.

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Comment (1)
Peter Makokha
Well said Tim & Debbie, to improve products, systems and services we need to develop customer empathy, positioning ourselves in their shoes to understand the true value we seek in our solution. Purpose motive supersedes profit, schedule or performance motivated projects and when coupled with a team ecosystem that includes the customer leads to a more successful user driven design.